Cuba Is Just a Friend, Venezuela Tells Suspicious U.S.

Times Staff Writer

As U.S. officials lob accusations that President Hugo Chavez is conspiring with Cuban leader Fidel Castro to destabilize U.S. allies in Latin America, Venezuelan officials say the allegations are much ado about nothing.

Sure, Chavez is shipping nearly 55,000 barrels of oil daily to communist Cuba at discounted prices, running up a trade debt reportedly in excess of $700 million. There are also 12,000 Cuban medical and educational professionals deployed across Venezuela. In addition, Chavez and Castro, in their frequent meetings, are quick to criticize Washington's trade policies and its war in Iraq.

Although Washington senses something nefarious in the cozy relationship between Havana and Caracas, Venezuelans insist that the links are more of a personal and pragmatic nature. And U.S. innuendo of a revolutionary alliance, they say, is only inciting anti-U.S. sentiment in the region.

Throughout January, Bush administration officials accused Chavez of stirring up trouble in Latin American democracies that have good relations with the U.S. In comments to news organizations, senior U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said that Venezuela and Cuba were backing insurgents in Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay, and that Venezuelan financing of leftists in Bolivia helped bring down the elected, pro-U.S. president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, in October.

Amid the flurry of anonymous, unsubstantiated contentions, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice publicly urged Chavez -- twice elected president in votes deemed free and fair -- to submit to opposition demands for a recall vote to demonstrate "that he believes in democratic processes."

Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, intimated at last month's Summit of the Americas in Mexico that Chavez was aligned with an aging Castro "nostalgic for destabilizing elected governments."

Venezuelan officials and analysts denounce the allegations as unfounded and hypocritical. They say the nation should be able to maintain good ties with the U.S. and, simultaneously, one of its mortal enemies.

"In Washington, there is this view that Venezuela is becoming another Cuba. They don't know anything about the reality," Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said.

Tarek William Saab, head of parliament's foreign relations committee, accused U.S. officials of "slander and defamation" aimed at weakening a democratically elected government. The U.S. allegations, he said, are "false and irresponsible and cowardly."

Rejecting U.S. concerns that the 12,000 Cubans sent to Venezuela are an indication that Castro is hard at work fomenting revolution, Rangel said the only fighting they are doing is in the war on poverty.

"This is just part of Washington's demonization of Cuba," he said. "There are no American doctors here, although they would certainly be welcome."

U.S. officials remain wary. "We're keeping an eye on what is happening there," said Noriega's media advisor, Gonzalo Gallegos. "We're not going to say a government can't do this or can't do that.... But we do feel countries dedicated to the democratic process should be reflecting that in their associations."

Officials here contend that the allegations of regional rabble-rousing are instigating anti-U.S. sentiment where there was none. Pro-Chavez rallies to counter the recall campaign have been dotted with banners rejecting what the president's backers see as U.S. interference.

On Jan. 17, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas said it had received information about a possible threat against U.S. interests in the Venezuelan capital, which local media linked with a radical leftist group at odds with both Chavez's government and the center-right business forces who oppose him.

"Anti-American feeling is a consequence of this, not a cause," said Rangel, who nevertheless describes U.S.-Venezuela trade and social relations as unaffected by the accusations.

In fact, even as Chavez may have become Castro's best friend in the region, the Venezuelan president has pursued policies that Washington would be hard-pressed to fault.

Analysts note, for instance, that Chavez has kept up his foreign debt payments even after a two-month national strike a year ago caused the economy to shrink by more than 10%. He also oversaw a redrafting of the constitution in 2000 that liberalized foreign investment laws and strengthened the economy's capitalist foundation.

"Cuba is an irritant in relations between the United States and Venezuela because some see this as a signal of the direction Chavez is taking. But if you look at what he does and not what he says, you see a very different story," said Michael Gavin, chief economist for Latin America for investment bank UBS Warburg. Chavez has upheld the rights of foreign investors, even when it hurt him politically, Gavin said.

Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the daily Tal Cual and one of the few political analysts aligned with neither Chavez nor his opponents, dismissed the recent discord as nothing but "ballyhoo" stirred up by the fact that President Bush doesn't care much for Chavez, and vice versa.

"The American government sometimes believes that American laws are the laws of the world.... Bush speaks to Venezuela as if it was California," said Petkoff, noting that Venezuelans found that attitude insulting but that it had little effect on relations.

"On the oil platform, our relations are excellent," he said.

Venezuela is the fourth-leading foreign oil supplier to the United States.

Most of the meetings between Chavez and Castro have been fleeting, often over a single lunch or dinner after an international forum from which the Cuban leader was excluded. Chavez last month appointed his older brother Adan as ambassador to Cuba, a move that was hailed in Havana as evidence of an intensifying alliance but was viewed here, even by Chavez opponents, as more symbolic of the personal ties between the two leaders.

Although his opponents cast the Cuba relationship as ominous, Chavez has scored domestic political points from his ties with Castro. The discounted oil was rewarded with the Cuban relief works popular with Chavez's chief constituency: the poor.

Those who know both Castro and Chavez laugh at suggestions that the latter is steering Venezuela into the Communist camp, because even those in it recognize its economic failures.

"That's absurd," said Max Lesnik, a Cuban exile in Miami with close ties to both leaders. "If Chavez asked Castro how to organize a Communist revolution, Fidel would tell him, 'Don't do it!' "

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Williams was recently on assignment in Caracas.

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